Ohio teen who was ordered to take off offensive T-shirt takes city to court

Friday, January 28, 2000

A teen-ager who was stopped by Northwood, Ohio, police officers and ordered to remove his T-shirt featuring slogans of the rock-rap band Insane Clown Posse has filed suit in federal court, claiming that the officers violated his First Amendment free-expression rights.

Daniel Shellhammer, 14, said he was forced to remove the shirt last August after the police officers told him that Insane Clown Posse clothing was “banned” in the state of Ohio.

The shirt featured the name of the band on the front and a picture of Santa Claus with a bullet in his head. The back of the T-shirt bore the words “Merry F—– Xmas B—-.”

Shellhammer alleges in Shellhammer v. City of Northwood that the officers, Joseph Conley and Al Williams, threatened to “tear it off his back” and charge him with disorderly conduct if he did not remove the shirt.

Shellhammer gave the shirt to the officers, who confiscated it and took it to the Northwood Police Department. He walked home without a shirt.

The lawsuit filed on Jan. 26 alleges that as a result of the defendants' actions, “plaintiff and other like-minded citizens and residents have suffered and will continue to suffer severe and irreparable harm and injury to their rights.”

“It is our hope that the municipality of Northwood will quickly recognize and acknowledge that the actions of these officers were a misuse of police power that went beyond appropriate law enforcement,” said attorney Arnold Gottlieb, who represents Shellhammer and serves as a volunteer attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio.

“It is clear that Daniel was stopped and confronted by police officers because of the content of his shirt, as opposed to any conduct on his part,” Gottlieb said.

Raymond Vasvari, legal director for the ACLU of Ohio, said in a news release: “The First Amendment protects even offensive speech. The police should know that. It is part of the Constitution they are sworn to uphold and protect.”

City Administrator Charles Curtis said: “We have no comment on the lawsuit. It is for the courts and our attorneys. That is why we have them.”

Calls to the attorney representing the city were not returned. Police referred questions to the city attorney.